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How Orthodox Jews Can Fight Islamophobia — by Taking a Lesson from Sikhs

Running my habitual ten minutes late (hey, it’s Standard Jewish Time), I tried to slip quietly into a packed Islamophobia seminar on the UC Berkeley campus. I shuffled my way to a seat, attracting a couple of glances — followed by double takes from a few classmates who knew me.

I understood the quizzical looks. Orthodox people don’t show up to these things in droves. I seemed like the wrong kind of Jew to be there, sitting among Muslims, Sikhs and Jewish-Voice-for-Peace-niks discussing how to combat Islamophobia as allies to the Muslim community. I wasn’t surprised by anyone’s surprise, but I was saddened.

I want the Orthodox community to actively combat Islamophobia, not only because it aligns with our Jewish values (I firmly believe it does), but also because it’s in our best interest. Thankfully, another religious minority is already demonstrating what inter-communal solidarity can look like and why it matters.

Let’s take a lesson from American Sikhs.

This year, the Islamic Center at New York University honored the Sikh Coalition with a Community Choice Award for its advocacy on behalf of the American Muslim community, among others. Far from an isolated moment of unity, the award is an example of a budding post-9/11 relationship, centered around mutual challenges as religious minorities in America. As Muslims faced a steep increase in hate crimes after 2001, Sikhs experienced a parallel rise, thanks to perpetrators too ignorant to tell the difference between the two religions.

But harassment isn’t their only shared experience. Both communities are made visible in America by religious garb — turbans and uncut hair, beards and hijabs — and both fight for the right to wear those identities boldly and safely in public space, whether at the office, at school or in the American military. In light of their common goals and struggles, Sikh leaders at organizations like the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) have spoken out loudly and clearly against Islamophobia.

The Muslim-Sikh relationship is an inspiring example of interfaith collaboration. It’s also pragmatic: Their collective voice makes both communities’ needs more easily heard. It’s time we contribute our voice as Orthodox Jews because, believe it or not, Islamophobia is our fight, too.

Unlike Sikhs, Orthodox Jews rarely get subjected to Islamophobia, but we do suffer our share of negative attention. In the FBI’s latest annual report on hate crimes, Jews remained the most targeted among religious groups. While these reports aren’t gospel (um… Torah), they show that we can unfortunately still relate to Muslims’ reality, even if we’re no longer the newest scary immigrant group on the block. Like Sikhs and Muslims, Orthodox Jews in particular are visibly religious, set apart by kippot, tzittzit, tichels and other markers of Jewish identity. Like any religious minority, we want our religious expression protected, respected and understood.

More than that, Orthodox Jews share some very specific needs with the Muslim community. Both groups want to live in a society that understands our traditions well enough to know… well, when we’re not being suspicious. (Flashback to the time a kid putting on tefillin downed a plane.) We want access to food that adheres to our respective religious dietary restrictions, halal and kashrut. We want allotted time from work for regular prayer and holidays. We want to be able to go to our own religious courts. Islamophobia sets a precedent that puts our own interests at risk.

Take “foreign laws” bills, for example. Multiple states have approved bills that prevent judges from taking into account “foreign laws” in the courtroom. These bills are a byproduct of the fear that Shariah law will stealthily spread across the U.S. — or, in entertaining hashtag form, #CreepingShariah. The truth is, the Islamic legal bodies these bills oppose are the Muslim equivalent of beit dins, local courts handling marriage, divorce and conflicts among community members. Though these bills aren’t aimed at us and #CreepingHalacha sounds far less sinister to our neighbors, these Islamophobic bills impact a principle of religious freedom that we should deeply care about.

Ultimately, if we want our rights as a religious minority protected, if we want Jews wearing traditional head coverings to experience equality and respect, if we want tolerance for our own public forms of observance, it behooves us to fight for Muslims to enjoy the same things without fear or discrimination. While our traditions may be different, the values we are asking American society to uphold are the same.

My Yiddish-speaking great-grandmother had one question about any piece of news, “…but is it good for the Jews?” The bottom line is this: Islamophobia isn’t good for the Jews. As the Sikh community realized early on, it’s not good for any religious minority. But working together as religious communities to create an environment of religious literacy and tolerance benefits us all.

Sara Weissman has a B.A. in History with a minor in Religious Studies from UC Berkeley. She is currently a Handa Fellow in Interreligious Communication and her freelance writing focuses on religion journalism. Follow her on Twitter @SaraWeissman

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